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Presidents Conference elects Lauder by overwhelming vote

NEW YORK, Feb. 3 (JTA) — Ronald Lauder walked out of the offices of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations on Wednesday as the group’s newly elected chairman. Lauder said he felt in “good shape” following the overwhelming vote in his favor. In a show of hands, 41 of the umbrella group’s 55 member organizations voted for the philanthropist and cosmetics company heir who serves as president of the Jewish National Fund. There were four abstentions and no negative votes. The tally bodes well for the beginning of Lauder’s two-year tenure, which begins in June. Just hours before the election, rumors and even an article in The New York Times had hinted at a major rift in the consensus-based organization. Some member organizations felt that Lauder had not adequately answered questions about his political and financial ties to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But in the end, the majority of conference members opted for a solid front. “There had been a fear” that the controversy “would split the conference, but the conference pulled through,” said Betty Ehrenberg, director of international affairs and communal relations at the Orthodox Union’s Institute for Public Affairs. One day earlier, Lauder had reconvened with the conference’s seven-member nominating committee to address questions that arose last week from news reports published by the New York Jewish Week and the Israeli daily Ha’aretz. Those articles investigated Lauder’s involvement with right-wing Israeli organizations and his indirect support of Netanyahu’s 1996 campaign. All along, Lauder had insisted that he had accurately responded to questions about the matter when they had been raised by the nominating committee. He said he had done nothing that would prevent him from leading the organization, which speaks for the organized Jewish community to the U.S. government and world leaders. Concern among conference members had led to a conference call of some 20 groups to discuss the matter. But “less than a half dozen” conference members contacted the nominating committee with “certain questions,” said Leon Levy, the committee chairman, adding that “we acted on the concerns they had.” After Tuesday’s meeting, several members of the nominating committee said they were satisfied by Lauder’s answers. “The committee has done due diligence and has come to a unanimous conclusion,” the president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, Stephen Wolnek, said of that meeting. Following his confirmation on Wednesday, Lauder was warmly congratulated by Philip Meltzer, the president of the Association of Reform Zionists of America, and Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the president of the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations. Both men said they had been reassured in their support of Lauder by the nominating committee’s positive reports. As his first order of business, Lauder said in an interview with JTA following his election that he would meet with member organizations on a group-by-group basis to determine points of vital interest to the conference’s religious and political constituencies. In his acceptance speech, Lauder, who is a former U.S. ambassador to Austria, thanked the group for its trust and called for unity and consensus. “Unity does not require conformity, but rather a recognition that we are one people bound together by faith, history and commitment,” he said. As he returned victorious to his offices overlooking Central Park, Lauder said his diplomatic service had been “an excellent training ground for representing a point of view” that was not necessarily his own.